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Vallecito Fires Continue To Spread, Forcing Evacuations, Racking $3.8 Million In Costs

Hundreds of rural East County residents were under mandatory evacuation orders today as more than 1,000 firefighters battled five lightning-sparked brush fires -- three that are fully contained and two that are threatening to merge.

Special Feature Ranchita Fire

The roughly 400 evacuees, who were told to vacate their premises late Tuesday afternoon by the county's reverse 911 system, live in the unincorporated community of Ranchita and in the San Felipe area off Highway 78, according to Cal Fire. Residents were invited to take shelter at Warner Springs High School.

Evacuation orders remained in effect this morning as Cal Fire reported that around 400 structures were threatened. Multiple road and highway closures between Borrego Springs, Julian and Ranchita were also in effect early today.

"Firefighters continue to make progress, though there is still a considerable amount of open fire line," said Cal Fire Capt. Mike Mohler.

"Extreme terrain and distance from roads are making access to fires difficult for ground resources."

The flames fed a huge plume of smoke that towered over the rural area just west of Borrego Springs. Hand crews set back fires along rural roads, hoping to stop the advancing flames by starving the wildfire. Karen Fritz watched the smoke for a day, before she sought help at the Red Cross shelter at Warner Springs High School.

“The main reason was because the wind was shifting the other way towards the house and towards the animals and I started to, my eyes were burning a lot and I started smelling smoke through my bedroom window early in the morning,” she said.

It was also a tense time for Ranchita resident Pat Talbott. He bought land in the area nine years ago, after the 2003 wildfires roared through the community.

“We had fire crews at our house yesterday with engines stationed around us so we felt a little more urgency and then they left yesterday evening," he said. "Then we got a knock on the door about 10:30 last night, from the highway patrol advising us that there was a mandatory evacuation."

Cal Fire Capt. Mike Smith said they hope the weather remains stable.

“If we get those winds out of the southwest and they continue at a moderate rate out of the southwest, then we can plan for the potential growth and spread of this incident," he said. "When the winds shift from one direction to another we have to divide our resources and fight it from multiple fronts."

Mohler added that fire continues to threaten the 69-kilovolt electrical distribution lines in Grapevine Canyon that serve Borrego Springs, Warner Springs and Ranchita.

Cal fire said 1,453 firefighters are fighting the five fires from the ground and the air. The fires -- collectively known as the Vallecito Lightning Complex -- scorched 15,525 acres as of 7 p.m. today, according to the agency.

The first of the blazes was the Vallecito Fire, which charred 519 acres southeast of Julian since around 8 p.m. Sunday and was 100 percent contained as of Tuesday night, Cal Fire reported.

The three other fires -- the Wilson, Stewart and Cooper fires -- each erupted Monday afternoon, scorching ground northeast of Julian, near Scissors Crossing. Cal Fire reported that the Wilson Fire burned 8,000 acres and was 50 percent contained as of this morning; the Stewart Fire blackened 7,000 acres, with 40 percent containment; and the Cooper Fire burned over only three acres and was 100 percent contained.

The fifth fire -- the Wynola Fire -- broke out Tuesday and scorched three acres in the Wynola area. It was 100 percent contained as of Tuesday night, Cal Fire reported.

Authorities said the Wilson and Stewart fires could merge today.

No structure losses have been reported, but two firefighters were injured, including one who suffered from heat exhaustion, according to Cal Fire. The estimated cost to date to suppress the fire is $3,757,482.

The firefighters from Cal Fire and other departments assigned to the five fires have been supported by 77 fire engines, 48 fire crews, 14 helicopters, eight bulldozers and 28 water tenders, authorities said.

Late this morning, flight crews from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar answered a call from Cal Fire to join in the effort to subdue the blazes. The northern San Diego USMC base was sending eight helicopters -- CH-53 Super Stallions and CH-46 Sea Knights -- to help shuttle personnel to the fire lines and make water drops.

The CH-53s belong to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadrons 462, 465 and 466, Marine Aircraft Group 16, and are stationed at MCAS Miramar. The CH-46s belong to Marine Medium Helicopter Training Squadron 164, Marine Aircraft Group 39, based at Camp Pendleton.

Residents with questions about the fires are encouraged to call Cal Fire's incident information line at (619) 590-3160 or follow the agency on Twitter, calfiresandiego.

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